Welcome to the slaughterhouse. The very definition of '70s grindhouse horror, ' The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' is not only a classic of the genre, but a piece of our shared cultural lexicon. Just mention the words of the title to someone, and even if they've never seen the film, they'll know exactly what you're talking about. Whether of not that makes 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' a legitimately good film is another matter. But perhaps that's besides the point these days -- the film exists in our memory banks as a collective nightmare, with images that still hold enough raw visceral power to shock thirty-five years after its original creation.
The story is likely familiar to most, and if not, it will likely seem completely generic because it's been ripped-off by just about every slasher film of the past three-and-a-half decades. A group of five friends is making a trip through Texas in search of the grave of a relative. After stopping by a particularly creepy gas station to ask for directions, they pick up a crazy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who regales them with tales of the local slaughterhouse, and, in a charming precursor of the horrors to come, slices himself with a razor blade. The van of kids promptly kicks him out, but that's only the beginning of the fun. Stumbling upon a seemingly deserted farmhouse, the kids discover it's really the home of the hitchhiker's even nuttier clan, led by demented patriarch Sawyer and his obese, chainsaw wielding brother Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). What follows is about as gruesome and blood-soaked as you can imagine.
The point of 'Texas Chainsaw' is hardly its plot. As directed by Tobe Hooper and shot by cinematographer Daniel Pearl, the film aims only to reproduce the structure and syntax of a nightmare. It accomplishes that with astonishing fidelity. On one level of craftsmanship, 'Texas Chainsaw' would seem to be a mess. Screen direction frequently shifts, eye-lines don't match from one shot to the next, and the low-budget conditions often wreak havoc with continuity of lighting, performance, and dialogue. Yet there's a sustained through-line of (il)logic, that may not make "sense" on a conscious level, but feels subconsciously correct. Much like a bad dream where, no matter how hard you try to run, your legs just won't cooperate, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' captures that primal, irrational terror and milks it for every last drop of effectiveness.
Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel also achieve greater thematic resonance thanks to character construction that is a bit more complex than it may at first appear. We are able to see heroine Sally (Marilyn Burns, perhaps the greatest screamer in horror movie history) as a if-not-quite-three-dimensional person than at least as a genuine human being worthy of our empathy. Hooper and Henkel also outline the other passengers with some quirky strokes, particularly the zodiac-spouting Pam (Teri McMinn, who meets a particularly nasty end on a meat hook) and her ineffectual boyfriend Kirk (William Vail, who we at first think will be the traditional, rugged leading man). At the same time, the characters are archetypal enough that Hooper is able to easily equate them with the cattle of the local slaughterhouse. As the film suggests again and again narratively (by the arbitrary order in which the protagonists are killed) and visually (by frequently placing our heroes in diminished positions within his compositions), meat is meat. The universe cares little for us mere human animals. If not quite existential, 'The Texas Chainasaw Massacre' is certainly the most unsentimental of horror films when it comes to valuing humanity's ultimate place in the natural pecking order.
'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' also works as a piece of pop art thanks to Pearl. Now one of the more successful and in-demand DPs in Hollywood, he cut his teeth on 'Texas Chainsaw,' and his work is admirably ambitious. There are shots of impressive fluidity and shocking beauty in the film. The early sun-drenched exteriors are striking in the way they combine function with form, and the film's most famous sequences work so effectively due to Pearl's dexterity. Witness the fascinating low dolly shot from under a swing as we first enter the Sawyer house, or the quick-cut montage of Burns' eyeballs as she's being tortured around a dinner table. It's this mix of go-for-the-jugular exploitation imagery mixed with an artistic ambition on behalf of Hooper and Pearl that allowed 'Texas Chainsaw' to stretch the boundaries of what was possible in low-budget exploitation cinema.
Of course, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' remains notorious not as much for its visual and thematic concerns but for its pure gut-wrenching impact. Certainly, the film's most iconic image is that of Leatherface waving his chainsaw, and it's this raw brute force of purpose that continues to engender the film to its legion of fans. Hooper's film is now synonymous with no-bullshit, old-school horror (which even the glossy studio remake in 2003 couldn't entirely strip away). That may be a disputable legacy, but it's a legacy nonetheless. 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' may have become dated in the intervening thirty-four years (the fashions and overall cheapness of the enterprise now distract from rather than enhance the film's documentary style), but it made its mark in its day, and then some. For that, and the sheer passion and aspirations of craftsmanship that Hooper and his filmmaking team displayed, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' has cemented a rightful place in the canon of classic horror films.
Let's face it: 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' looks like shit. The film was shot for about $12, on grainy 16mm film with about two lights in the equipment truck. There is just only so much that a high-res format like Blu-ray can do with material like this. That said, the good news is that this 1080p/VC-1 encode (matted to 1.78:1) is certainly the best this film has ever looked on home video. The bad news is that this disc is about the last one you're ever gonna pull out to show off your home theater.
The source has been restored from the best available elements, but cannot betray it's extremely thrifty origins. Blacks are surprisingly deep and consistent, though contrast is all over the map -- many of the daylight shots appear intentionally blown out, while darker scenes can range from passable to downright inscrutable. Colors are richer than on past video versions (especially reds and blues) and are about as clean as can be expected given the shooting conditions. This is also certainly the grainiest transfer I've ever seen on a Blu-ray. The image is alive with it, though it's completely in keeping with the film's cinema verite intentions so therefore is welcome. The image is far from sharp, and sometimes it's so soft it almost borders on being out of focus. Also don't expect much in the way of depth or detail, though again, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' has never looked better than it does here. For fans of this cult classic, I'm sure that will be more than enough.
Dark Sky does not offer a high-res audio option for 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' but then it hardly would have mattered. The English DTS 5.1 Surround (1.5mbps), PCM 2.0 Stereo (2.3mbps) and Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (192kbps) tracks we do get here are more than adequate.
Originally a mono film, both the DTS and PCM mixes sound quite processed. Surround effects on the DTS don't sound so much discrete as simply extracted frequencies directed to the rear channels. Envelopment is sporadic, coming in bursts. Given the quite schizophrenic nature of the film, atmosphere is tough to sustain, though this only adds to the unsettling nature of the almost atonal "score." Dialogue suffers from very poor recording, which often renders much of it hard to decipher and overwhelmed by all the squealing chainsaws. (Appropriately, however, Marilyn Burns incessant screaming comes through loud and clear.) There are also frequent instances of hiss and upper-range distortion, which frequently makes listening to 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' a punishing experience. Which, I'm sure, is exactly the point. On that level, this Blu-ray sounds mighty fine indeed.
Dark Sky certainly hasn't pulled in any punches with the extras on 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.' This Blu-ray edition culls just about all of the material found on the myriad of past DVD editions of the film, so completists should be pretty happy. All video materials are presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only (most in 4:3 full screen). I could access no subtitle options.
'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' if dated, remains a thoroughly unpleasant cinematic experience. It's the very definition of a horror film -- an inescapable nightmare that seems to have no end and no point, yet it's undeniably powerful and, at times, pretty dang scary. This Blu-ray is undoubtedly the best this film has ever looked and sounded on home video, even if it still looks poor by most standards. And the extras are quite a package. Without a doubt, 'Texas Chainsaw' fans should not hesitate to pick up this Blu-ray.